Saturday, July 23, 2016

South America - 4th Stop: Bolivia (Salar de Uyuni)

After leaving San Pedro, our next three days were spent on a border-hopping tour through the Andes and into Bolivia, where we would encounter a lifetime supply of mountains, lagoons and flamingos, finally finishing up in Salar de Uyuni - the famous Bolivian salt flats. We try to avoid group tours as much as possible on our travels, simply because we often prefer to do our own thing, rather than follow the tourist line, but sometimes there's no alternative. Another downside is you don't get to choose who you're going to be stuck with 24 hours a day, but here we lucked out on both counts. Cordillera Traveller provided an excellent few days, and we were paired up with a lovely group, with two brothers from Brazil and two medical students from Taiwan. Having good company really makes such a difference.

We'll come to those photos later.

Before we began to see the sights, we first had to make our way into Bolivia in one of the strangest border crossings we've experienced. Everywhere else in the world, these are quite formal and intimidating affairs - big buildings, men with guns, etc., but this was just a little hut in the mountains. I'm sure it would be very easy to sneak past if you needed to...

Luckily, we didn't need to resort to such tactics, so with our passports stamped, we were ready to hit Bolivia!

It was at this stage where we were put into our groups and, as all drivers here speak only Spanish, we were extra lucky to be paired up with Rafael and Marcos, two Brazilians who essentially worked as translators for the three days from Spanish to English. In fact, our car was a real melting pot of languages and cultures, with Spanish, English, Irish, Portuguese and Chinese all being spoken interchangeably, with varying degrees of success.

Our first two stops were Lagunas Blanco and Verde, although the white and green of the waters weren't so colourful under ice.

As you can probably guess, it was a very cold introduction, and it didn't really get much warmer.

Our next stop offered the option of taking a dip in a natural hot spring, which should sound appealing in such conditions, but the 35 degree water wasn't enticing enough to get into, and definitely not enticing enough to get back out of! Instead, we just wandered about, taking snaps of the vicuñas - another member of the general llama/alpaca family.

While the last hot springs were too cold, the next ones were certainly too hot, though these bubbling, sulfuric geysers did at least give a warm breeze. We unfortunately never did find ones that were just right...

And that was mostly it for the first day. The food and accommodation were basic, but it's the same with every company, simply because you're in the middle of nowhere. There aren't 5 star hotels or gourmet restaurants hidden away in the Andean highlands. You've just got to make the best of what's available, and for us, that meant plenty of snacks during the day, and sleeping fully clothed at night!

The next day brought another supposedly coloured lagoon, but Laguna Colorada wasn't as red as we were hoping. It at least gave us plenty of wildlife to admire, and although the flamingos were too far away, the llamas/alpacas weren't shy.

I say llamas/alpacas as I can't actually tell what these are. I used to be pretty confident too! I think they're llamas, but I'm not sure...

We also passed through the Siloli Desert, famous for its Dali-esque rock formations.

Most of these were just quick photo stops, so I don't really have a whole lot to say! That's another thing about group tours - if you spend most of the day in the car, only getting out to take a few snaps, you don't really generate an awful lot of stories!

Anyway, the afternoon brought a few more lagoons and a lot more flamingos!

I do like flamingos a lot. I think they're probably my second favourite bird behind puffins. They're also the most technologically advanced creature in the world, surpassing humans by bringing internet to the Andean highlands.

That night was spent in the town of San Juan in a salt hotel, a hotel completely made of salt! Salt walls, salt floors, salt tables, salt everything! Now, I haven't done any research on the matter, but I'd imagine this is the number one condiment built hotel in the world.

Way better than that mayonnaise hotel we stayed in last year!

Day 3 brought the pièce de résistance for our Uyuni tour, as we woke up extra early for sunrise over the salt flats. Normally, I'm not too keen on sunrises, simply because I'm not too keen on waking up early, but I guess that was one positive thing about the freezing cold nights - getting out of bed wasn't much of a chore!

As the sun continued to rise, we drove to Incahuasi Island, a cactus-filled lump of rock in the middle of the salt flats. So, not really an island at all, but still some stunning scenery and a proper view of how vast the salt flats really are (10,582 square kilometers for anyone counting).

What a massive prick! And look at the size of that cactus!

We also took our video diary here, so check that out:

After a quick breakfast, the time had come to see the salt flats for themselves, and more importantly, to get some classic Uyuni photos! I'm sure you've all seen many of these online, where a false sense of perspective is created by the flat, white terrain. No trip to Uyuni, or Bolivia for that matter, is complete without a few of these snaps, so it was just a matter of thinking up and orchestrating as many of these as possible before our time, or my battery ran out.

Poor Frankie would've loved it here...

Unfortunately, one of our group's camera was stolen a few days later on the way to La Paz, so some of the photos were lost forever, but we still got a few good ones. It's actually quite stressful running around frantically, trying to get the angles and distances just right. It must be very entertaining for anyone observing!

I'm sure it makes a lot more sense through the lens.

When all the photos were taken, and just before it was time to head on, we all grouped together for an extra special Uyuni dance challenge. See the video link below, it's worth watching!

We also made a few short stops on the way to Uyuni town, including a checkpoint for the Dakar Rally, and a train cemetery, which were both actually quite cool.

And that was mostly it! We had a quick lunch in the town and said our teary goodbyes to our groupmates, before heading off to catch a bus to Potosi. All in all, it was a very fun trip, and Cordillera Traveller get a thumbs up from us. Most people end up doing this tour from Bolivia into Chile, so if you want to beat the crowds, doing the opposite is a good option (though maybe a bit more expensive). Next up for us were two mini-stays in the towns of Potosi and Sucre. See you then!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

South America - 3rd Stop: Chile (San Pedro de Atacama)

Last time out, we had a contender for worst ever destination with Arica. This time, we're right up at the other end of the table, alongside heavyweights like Bagan, Hoi An and Tokyo, with San Pedro de Atacama putting itself and Chile firmly on the map. Our decision to take a day off Arica and put it towards San Pedro is now looking even more inspired! We had four full days here and each one was better than the last, with so much to see and do in the surrounding area. The scenery is up there with the very best we've encountered anywhere in the world, and more diverse than you could imagine, amidst the sand, snow, salt and sea.

That last one is actually a lake, but that didn't really fit with the alliteration...

Even though we had a wonderful time here, things got off to quite an ominous start. This is San Pedro de Atacama, as in, the Atacama Desert, as in, the driest desert in the world. So, of course, what happens when we roll into town...?

The average rainfall here for July is 0 mm, and in fact, we were told that the amount  of rain they got that day is more than they usually get in a year! You're welcome, lads. I was expecting to be shaking the sand out of my shoes, not scraping the mud off!

The wet weather didn't last too long though, and it gave us time to arrange our diaries for the next few days. San Pedro itself is a nice little town, like something you'd imagine from the Wild West, but the real beauty lies in its environs. We had booked ourselves in for four excursions to make the most of our time in town, but that first day's rain meant that one had to be cancelled. In fairness though, it could've been a lot worse, and we still got to see pretty much everything we wanted. The one that was cancelled, Tatio Geysers and Puritama Hot Springs, was quite similar to what we had seen in Iceland this time last year anyway, so no big loss.

Our first excursion took us to Laguna Cejar, a salt lake akin to the Dead Sea, where you can float with ease. The hardest part was lowering yourself into the freezing cold water. Don't be fooled by the blue skies, it was seriously cold!

The temperature was only half the problem as, when the water dries, you're left with a thick layer of salt on your skin. Thankfully, we brought along a bottle of fresh water to douse ourselves with. Otherwise, it would've been a long and itchy day.

Embarrassing story actually - we didn't know that the lake had an entrance fee, so of course we didn't bring money for it. We only realised when we reached the top of the queue and had to sheepishly ask our driver for a loan. Totes awks! We made sure, of course, to pay him back as soon we returned to San Pedro, with a nice tip included. Thanks Jorge!

After our swim (or rather, float), we headed to the Ojos del Salar, two round, still lakes that give crystal clear reflections.

Our final stop of the day was sunset at Laguna Tebinquinche, and as sunsets go, it's up there with the very best. It was one of those places where you end up just taking photo after photo of the same thing. It doesn't even seem real, but it is! #nofilter

And that was only day 2! We still had two more days of sights to see, so I'll try to go through them quite quickly. Good times don't make for the best stories...

The next day, we had an afternoon tour of Valle de la Luna and Valle de la Muerte - Moon Valley and Death Valley. Again, more stunning scenery, so I'll just let the pictures do the talking.

It's said that Death Valley (Valle de la Muerte) was originally Mars Valley (Valle de la Marte), but was just mistranslated. That theory makes a lot of sense when you see the photos. They're like stills from The Martian! In fact, just for fun, I put in an actual picture from the movie in amongst my own. See if you can guess which one!

Another day, another unbelievable sunset. And I mean unbelievable in every sense of the word. Look at this next photo and tell me it doesn't look like the worst Photoshop you've ever seen!

It's all real! Those are real people and those are real colours! Double #nofilter!

One other thing to note from that day - when we tell people we're Irish, there's usually mixed familiarity. Some have never heard of the place (like the stewardess in Miami airport, seriously), some have a vague idea, and some even suggest their favourite Irish people - in Kunming, we met a guy who loved U2 and The Script. In Bali, our taxi driver spoke about Roy and Robbie Keane. Today however, our Chilean guide happened to be in love with Lisa Hannigan. Not a name I would have expected, but a welcome one nonetheless.

Our last day, and there was more adventuring, this time up into the Andean Highlands. If we thought the other days were cold, we were in for a serious shock. Remember, this is all part of the Atacama Desert!

Doesn't the last picture just look like a delicious mound of chocolate chip ice-cream?!

We spent the day travelling through the snow-capped Andes, andecapped by the snow. We really didn't pack for weather like this! We still had a great day, visiting the Piedras Rojas, Lagunas Antiplanicas and the Laguna de los Flamencos. We took plenty of photos of the flamingos from a distance, but there'll be much better ones in the next blog entry, so hold tight for that instead!

Just to note, if you do come to San Pedro, the streets are lined with tour companies, so it can be hard to know which ones are best. The two we worked with were great, so I'd recommend Atacama Connection and Cosmo Andino.

And that was pretty much it for our incredible few days in San Pedro. Here's our video diary in case you want to hear the same stories again:

Even though we only had a week in Chile, it made a huge impression on us, and it's definitely one place we'll be returning to in the future. I remember when we crossed the border from Peru, seeing a sign for Santiago, over 2,000km away. I'd never seen such a long distance on a road sign, and the whole country is twice that length! So, plenty more to see.

For now, we're crossing the Andes once more, this time leaving Chile behind and entering our next and last country of the trip - Bolivia!